Friday, August 08, 2003

The Great Linking: Spam, Andy Warhol, the Bible, and Mark Twain. I haven't got much time today, so buckle up. Eugene notes, quite rightly, in my opinion, that spam proliferates because it works (scroll to "Behavior that gets rewarded," posted at 3:12 on August 7; his archive doesn't seem to be working), quoting an interesting but tangential (to my point, anyway) Wired News article here.

But this may or may not be so easy to say about spam. The cost of spamming is so small that it is a cost-effective way to troll for customers, catch rates be damned. But compare it with telemarketing and the point does come into focus. Telemarketing is very expensive compared to spamming. Telemarketers, while not paid in NBA style, make a decent wage. (Even the non-profit alumni association at my college used to pay $7/hr to part timers. And that figure is from 1989.) A serious, for-profit telemarketing operation is expensive, because of labor costs, technology costs, and the cost of high quality lists.

But why does telemarketing work? Because we want to be sold things. I don't know the psychology behind it, but Terry Teachout, writing in the WSJ this week (no link) thinks it was figured out by a hack-wage illustrator from Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol, who

understood in his bones that it was the mass-produced iconography of Madison Avenue, not the high art of Shakespeare and Mozart or the serious popular art of Louis Armstrong and Buster Keaton, that had become the common culture of his time, a universal language intelligible to all men in all conditions. So instead of asking people to come up to his level, he came down to theirs, making "art" out of Campbell's Soup cans and Day-Glo-ed publicity stills of Marilyn Monroe. It was a burlesque of democracy . . .
I'm not sure I'd put it in such purple terms, but the general point is correct. Andy figured out that a part of our brain, maybe a subconscious part, likes a pitch enough to look at it -- in a different context -- as art. People say they don't pay attention to advertising; they go get a snack during the commercial break. (So how come everyone knows the new jingle, the latest humorous beer ad, etc.?) If this were truly the case, companies would be stupid to continue to pay for ad slots on tv, for pages in glossy magazines, and -- indeed -- for the telemarketers we claim to hate. They may be many things, but they ain't stupid. They keep paying because it works. Spam is just the latest in the snake-oil family tree that goes back, at least, to Jacob telling Esau how great the soup is. Fast forward a few thousand years later, and plus ca change -- Tom Sawyer is pitching fence-painting as nothing less than free fun. In fact, I seem to recall that Tom briefly entertains the possibility of charging for the privilege of whitewashing his fence. A boy ahead of his time.

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